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Loneliness, a Public Health Epidemic

May/21/2023 / by Sweta Vikram

Understanding it and the risks it carries can help you recognize when you need support

Loneliness. Shutterstock

I was at an Ayurveda workshop in Italy recently where the workshop facilitator asked our intimate group of Ayurvedic practitioners if we each had people we could talk to, aside from our partners. Because in the world of yoga and Ayurveda, kula, community, is given utmost importance and considered integral for nourishing our mental and emotional well-being. Humans aren’t supposed to live in silos and constantly think only about themselves. We are all connected. His question was a no-brainer for me — healthy social connections are important to my overall health — but I have learned that we see the world the way we are and through our lens of experiences.

We have all felt lonely at some point of our lives. But prolonged loneliness can have a severe impact on our well-being, including premature death. On May 2, 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, declared a new public health epidemic in America, loneliness. A new report finds loneliness can have profound effects on mental health as well as heart disease, stroke, and dementia. One Harvard survey conducted during the pandemic found that 36% of Americans — which includes 61% of young adults ages 18-25 — feel lonely frequently or almost all the time. Chronic loneliness can have significant effects on our physical and mental health. The Aspen Institute reports that lonely people likely become ill, experience cognitive decline, and die earlier.

The Power of Company

In the Ayurvedic workshop, we also informally talked about each person’s activity at the end of the workday. Some went back to their room and studied. Some people explored the beautiful hills of Tuscany, Italy by themselves. I would grab dinner with my husband, enjoy a new flavor of gelato, walk on the cobblestone streets, and watch mindless few minutes of Netflix with him. At the end of the evening, I would chat with my girl gang: female friends and cousins.

I don’t focus on the number of connections and people in my circle; it’s the quality of relationships that lights me up. My girl gang is globally dispersed but very tight knit. It’s important for me to stay in touch with them no matter where I am — we love sharing both the ordinariness and big moments with each other. Be it awards or a business idea or a bad massage experience or annoyance with a family member or an issue with a boss. You get the picture.

Connections Make a Difference

We root for each other daily. On one hand, I had my cousin sister burning sage and whispering wishes for my work in Italy; on the other, I had friends writing me thoughtful messages, checking in on my day, making fun of my quirky photos that I shared with them, visiting the temple, or raising a toast. I could tell them about my experiences without using filters, and they did the same.

I’ve read plenty of articles about why disconnecting completely is important when you are immersed in a new project. The focus should be the project. Meh! Doesn’t work for me. I work better when I feel rooted and connected. Ayurveda will tell you that the pitta in me is loyal, and the kapha in me appreciates connections and stability. Both Ayurveda and Western science will tell you that meaningful relationships are integral to our state of being and mental health.

An Epidemic of Solitude

Loneliness has become an epidemic in today’s day and age. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines loneliness as the “affective and cognitive discomfort or uneasiness from being or perceiving oneself to be alone or otherwise solitary.” In Italy, the workshop facilitator and his wife would say, “Come, come,” which was their Italian American translation of “Chalo, chalo.” The couple had spent a significant amount of time in India and remarked how Indians wouldn’t let you feel alone. It was a stark change from the western culture, but they loved the sense of community and care.

Being alone and feeling lonely are two different things. Loneliness is the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact. Coming from an Indian family, I have seen folks surround themselves with a hundred people at gatherings and attend 10 parties every weekend and multiple weddings every month. But I have also heard the same people confess that they feel lonely and disconnected. Mindless consumption of food and alcohol doesn’t necessarily create strong bonds. A lack of authenticity in relationships can create loneliness. Meaning, you can feel isolated and lonely even when in a crowd.

Network Down

For some people, loneliness stems from lack of social connections. I have American friends, clients, and colleagues, who despite growing up in a small town and living four doors down from their families and childhood friends, feel they have no supportive social connections. They believe nobody understands them or their choices. People have built too many boundaries and are hurting as a result.

I know the pandemic made things worse for a large majority of people. We were isolated and full of fears. But one drastic event can’t be the only reason loneliness has become an epidemic today.

According to Census Bureau surveys, people were spending less time with friends and more time alone even before the pandemic, which only intensified the sense of social isolation and loneliness.

That Empty Feeling

Imagine living with the belief that nobody wants you or cares about you. I have seen friends, estranged from their families, drink heavily during the holidays. I have seen clients and colleagues binge-eat because loneliness creates a sense of emptiness that they try to fill with food, which is vata dosha aggravation in Ayurveda-speak. Ayurveda will remind you that diseases start with the “manas,” your mind, and unresolved emotions. No matter what events are occurring around you, understanding loneliness and its risks is important for recognizing when you may need support.

People with robust social connections are more likely to live longer, healthier, and happier lives. If you struggle with loneliness, it’s important to question why you feel lonely. Loneliness is complicated and it shows up differently in people. If you’re not sure where to start, talk to your primary care doctor and find effective ways to deal with loneliness. Because loneliness can literally kill you.

The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.” ~ Mother Teresa